Common Ground: A lake by any other name is hard to find

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter
Cunningham Web
Directions to secret fishing holes given by a local as compared with those found in the regulation or guidebooks can make for a comedy of the go-a-mile-past-the-Johnson-farm-and-turn-right-at-where-the-old-tractor-used-to-be variety.

I only know as much about local lakes as I’ve found from tagging along with those more experienced than myself. This is probably because if I followed their directions to some of the best lake-fishing spots on the peninsula, I’d never find the remote places you can have to yourself. The reclusive calmness of lake fishing requires that there should never be more people on a given lake than there are pairs of loons.

Given the fact that a majority of peninsula lakes themselves are unnamed, renamed or not mentioned in the “Highway Angler,” finding them and, more importantly, knowing there are fish in them, takes more than glancing at a map, searching Google Earth, operating a GPS or following “simple” directions.

Spirit Lake, for example, is called Elephant Lake by many people and is still labeled Elephant Lake on most maps, where it looks as much like an elephant as the constellations look like whatever they are named for looking like.

Or a person could end up in Captain Cook State Park at the end of the road in Nikiski before finding Three Bays Lake. However, a stop at the Stormy Lake overlook would lend a subtle geographical clue, as the lake has three “bays.”

I haven’t personally heard anyone refer to Upper Ohmer Lake as Alcatraz, but if you were getting your directions from the road crew that was isolated on Skilak Lake Road one winter, they might use the unofficial name they were said to have given the lake, which took its meaning from the high-security prison of the same name.

Upper Ohmer has the highest density of rainbow trout on the peninsula and Stormy Lake produces the largest pike. Spirit Lake has the best kokanee fishing. The Arness lakes, which are no longer called the Arness lakes, have no fish in them. They’re now called the Salamatof Lakes, and still have no fish in them.
That lakes have been given official names is a moot point for those whose relationship to the field is one of use rather than label.

The mystery and the history of lake names don’t change what they are to the people who find them. Many of the lakes listed in the logbook for the Trustworthy Ice Fishing Derby, for example, are listed as “Secret Lake,” a lake that exists in name everywhere from Kasilof to Sterling. The value of unnamed and renamed lakes isn’t in what they are called or what treasure map could lead to them.

There’s a quote that sums up the outdoor experience in Alaska more than most places, probably: “The map is not the territory.”

What’s listed on paper can’t compare with actually being on the calm surface of a lake, hearing the whirr of the reel as line lets out in a cape over still water.

The fishing culture, with its tall tales and secret lakes, has more to do with escape than return. When I head to a lake to fish, I’m not thinking about the name of the place I’m going or how to tell someone else how to get there. And when I find one of these places by accident, the journey is the destination.

Maybe that’s why it’s impossible to give directions to good fishing spots.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. She can be reached at


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